Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/October 1906/The Birth of the Idea of Spirit in Greek Thought

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THE ideal side of life came into Greek consciousness on the eastern shore of the blue Mediterranean, under the shadow of Mt. Ida, in sunny Ionia with its fertile plains and luxuriant verdure and its rich and brilliant cities.

The poets were its forerunners, Homer, Alkaeus, Sappho and Anakreon. First there were the wandering poets, and then a school of poetry arose in the many tinted isle of Mitylene with Sappho at its head at the end of the seventh century, a school which was compared in antiquity to the circle of Sokrates. Schools of philosophy followed in Miletos, that hot-house of intellect, and later on in Ephesos, where Sappho and Herakleitos were born. We do not know whether these schools were organized Thiasai, dedicated to the goddesses like the school of Pythagoras in southern Italy and the Greek schools of philosophy of a later age, but it may well have been so, for in Ionia as in Greece there was a 'shrine at every turn of the mountain path, and a religious ceremony for every act of daily life.'

On the southern shore of the Gulf of Smyrna, opposite the river Hermus, with Mitylene in the distance across the sea, was the city of Klazomenai, the modern Voorla. There Anaxagoras was born, who was the first among the Greeks to evolve the idea of spirit as a philosophical principle. Yet like all great ideas, this one, perhaps the greatest, was vague and uncertain in its first appearance. Anaxagoras belonged to the school of Anaximenes of Miletos. Miletos lay only a few miles south of Klazomenai on the shore of another picturesque gulf of the eastern Mediterranean, and from the time of Thales it had been a center of philosophic thought. Theophrastos states that Anaxagoras was an 'associate of the philosophy of Anaximenes,' but these two great thinkers were not contemporary, as Anaximenes died in 520 b.c., two decades before the birth of Anaxagoras. The connection between them lay especially in a love of scientific research, and in similar methods of explanation of astronomical and cosmological facts. Anaxagoras lived in Ionia until he was about forty years of age, and he attained great fame in his own country during the last ten years of his residence there, gaining a reputation for depth of thought and integrity of life, and slowly evolving his theory of the universe.

The Ionian philosophers were monists and materialists. They sought a fundamental substance, water, air or fire, or some other form of matter, as the reality of life. In the language of the early Greeks we find the words soul and spirit synonymous with breath, and while the Greeks had the practical idea of the soul as the active power in being, they conceived of it as a thinner, finer form of matter. For example, Anaximenes speaks of air as being the breath of life. These old Ionian thinkers were not materialists, however, in quite the modern sense, which explains spirit as a function of matter, but they held rather the childlike idea that spirit is a purer, higher form of matter, for matter with them was the eternal existing something. It was not created, neither did the gods of Grecian mythology give it its form, for the gods had very little to do with the inner life of the Ionian thinkers in their efforts to find a natural cause for all phenomena.

Anaxagoras did not have very much difficulty in formulating a cosmic theory which suited him, that is, in making 'cosmos out of chaos' His method of working was reasonably scientific, but the results of his theory in regard to the origin of things around him were ludicrously childish and impossible, and were not of especial service to Greek thought except as they led up to his one great idea. We will give in a few words the substance of his world theory. Herakleitos, the philosopher of the flux, had founded his cosmos upon constant change, or becoming. Anaxagoras repudiated the idea of change; absolute change was impossible. "The Hellenes," he said, "are wrong in using the expressions 'coming into being' and 'perishing,' for nothing comes into being or perishes, but there is mixture and separation of things that are." Chemical change he had never thought about; therefore, things must always have been what they are now. All objects, organic or inorganic, in which respect he made no distinction, as bone, flesh or gold, for example, had existed from eternity in the same form in small particles. The apparently simple substances, like air, fire, earth and water, are really the most complex, because they contain the greatest number of these particles. In the beginning this infinite number of small particles was in the form of chaos. In chaos a wonderfully rapid whirling motion started, and like particles joined with like until objects as we know them, including all forms of animal life, came into existence. Aristophanes, in his 'clouds,' ridicules Anaxagoras's idea of the whirl with pungent wit, for he represents one of his characters as saying that Zeus is no longer the leading god, but 'whirl' has taken his place.

Anaxagoras, however, was not as illogical in regard to the origin of motion as he had been regarding the construction of matter. He knew that motion could not start of itself. The origin of motion was the problem which his contemporaries were solving in different ways, according to their trend of thought, Empedokles with his love and hate, or primitive form of chemical affinity, and Leukippos with atoms in a vacuum, the heaviest falling faster and uniting. Neither of these theories, however, seemed satisfactory to Anaxagoras. How then could he start the whirl in chaos? Long years of meditation were doubtless necessary before he evolved his great idea, which revealed a dim understanding of the power of reason in the origin of being. To start a whirl he must have an outside something, and if reason is the strongest element of human power, why should there not be some form of reason which is independent of matter and able to originate the whirl in chaos, and then to retire from the scene of action and return to the separate and lonely existence of its unknown past? Thus was born the idea of the Nous. The Nous is half spirit and half matter, as yet a vague force, the beginning of a conception of the thinking element in the universe. There is only one fragment preserved from the sayings of Anaxagoras which would imply a kind of personality in the Nous, in which he speaks of its having knowledge of the past, present and future. In general, however, we find that Anaxagoras's understanding of the Nous was rather that of a kind of matter, a thinking essence, the lightest of all things, a semi-material force.

When Anaxagoras was forty years old, having partially at least formulated his world theory, he went to Athens, the first philosopher to live there. Athens was then in the dawn of its brightest day. Perikles was coming into power, and his mind was seething with all the possibilities which the development of the Athenian democracy provided, and he was ripe for the strongest idealistic teaching of his age. Anaxagoras's migration to Athens has sometimes been attributed to Aspasia, who, herself from Miletos, would be desirous of bringing to Athens as much as possible of the brilliancy and culture of Ionia. There are chronological difficulties, however, against this supposition, as Aspasia must have been too young at that time to have gained influence over Athenian society; in fact, it may be quite possible, on the contrary, that Anaxagoras was himself the cause of Aspasia's going to Athens. Perikles, in his desire for the best for his beautiful Athens, very probably himself invited Anaxagoras from Ionia to Greece.

Anaxagoras's influence over Perikles was strong, and from the congenial counsels of these two great men was brought forth a wonderful atmosphere of love of freedom and reign of reason in Athens. We can picture Athens as she was in the beginning of Perikles's power from the excavations of Dr. Dörpfeld, president of the German School of Archeology in Athens, begun in 1891, on the northwest side of the Akropolis—a primitive town with small, insignificant houses and narrow streets—and it was during the three decades of Anaxagoras's life in Athens that the marvelous changes there were produced by Perikles. Eager pursuit of knowledge and art arose. Astronomy was influencing the reckoning of time. A new Athens was building with straight, broad streets and graceful columns. Music and gymnastics were being made prominent, and on the Akropolis was beginning to blossom the highest expression of beauty ever made by the human race. In the latter part of this period books, also, were in common use, although not as yet very numerous. Peisistratos had founded a library for those who applied themselves to letters, which had passed through various vicissitudes, and the Athenians had increased it with a great deal of care. To the stock of books in existence at that time Anaxagoras made an important addition. His book did not have an original title, being called πέρι φύσεμς, or 'On Nature,' like many other productions of Ionian philosophers, but his ideas were original, and it was the first book to be illustrated by diagrams, with the exception of geometrical writings. In Plato's time the book was on sale for a drachma, although it is said to have consisted of several volumes. Probably the volumes may have been rather what we should call chapters. This book, alas, is no longer in existence, although we possess important fragments of it, mostly found in Simplicius's commentary on Aristotle's physics, which was written in the sixth century, at which time a copy of the book was to be had.

Let us now consider some strange phenomena in connection with the first appearance of the idea of spirit in Greek philosophy. Anaxagoras himself had the characteristics of the idealist, but his world theory and the general trend of his studies were closely allied with the teachings of his materialistic predecessors in Ionia. He could not wholly escape from his age. When Sokrates heard of Anaxagoras's book he was delighted that some one had attributed the universe to an all-pervading spirit, and immediately sent for the book; but he was ;greatly disappointed on reading it, as he did not find there the idealism for which he had sought. Anaxagoras belonged not to the age of Sokrates, although he was partly contemporary with him, but he belonged wholly to the Ionian school of mathematical astronomy. The thought of Anaxagoras was scientific rather than philosophic, and his book was devoted to scientific, mathematical explanations of cosmography and astronomy. The Nous was not to him the all-important part, but only a necessary cause for the beginning of motion—a secondary first cause, so to speak. Yet the idea of the Nous was sufficient to introduce rationalism into Greece, for it was the first presentation of an existing rational force wholly distinct from matter. Anaxagoras was bent upon scientific discovery, and the important things in his mind were his method and his original theory of matter. How often it happens that what seems secondary to a great man proves after all his most far-reaching service to the world. As, for example, with Plato his philosophy was secondary in his own mind to his ideas of political reform, and, while it is true that the latter have been much regarded, yet the former have revolutionized all philosophic thought. Anaxagoras's rationalism did not enable him to produce a rational theory of matter, yet it rationalized all his thought and was a stepping stone between the earlier study of nature and the later study of man. Indeed, his rationalism affected Greece through his followers, who were Perikles, Euripides and Thukydides. It is probable, also, that Themistokles studied with him at some period, perhaps when Anaxagoras was still in Asia Minor during the time of Themistokles's ostracism.

The introduction of the Nous into Greek thought changed the basis upon which rested the accepted opinions of the multitude. We see this first of all in the necessary metamorphosis of religious beliefs which began in the age of Perikles.

The first strong point of influence on the part of Anaxagoras in revolutionizing thought was in his astronomy, which was sufficiently developed to enable him to give a comparatively correct explanation of eclipses and other astronomical phenomena. It was a part of the creed of the age that the heavenly bodies were gods, and even in the time of Plato it was considered a crime not to believe in the godhead of the sun and moon. Anaxagoras asserted that the sun was not Helios, the god, but a mass of ignited stone as large as, or larger than, the Peloponnesus. He even tried to explain how it became ignited. He attempted to reduce all meteorological and elemental phenomena to law, and although some of the laws were wrong, yet the idea of law as a force in nature controlling phenomena was a rationalizing power that we can hardly compute, for according to the belief of the multitude, the gods interfered to produce these phenomena. Anaxagoras has left no writings, to our knowledge, directly on religion. The Nous even does not seem to have been a god, but rather a force; yet by introducing laws to control the outward phenomena of the universe, by one fell stroke he destroyed the deepest-seated religious ideas of those around him. The lightning blast that Zeus produced from Mt. Olympus by shaking his aegis, was accounted for sacrilegiously by Anaxagoras. The rain, the storm and the seasons the people regarded as the work of Zeus; and Anaxagoras in explaining them according to natural laws seemed to threaten the foundation of their religion. The world had been the plaything of the gods. It was now the work of a rational principle. Anaxagoras separated the gods from the procession of natural phenomena; but that he did not wish to destroy the reverence with which they were regarded is shown by the spirit in which the restoration and the enlargement of the Akropolis was undertaken, while his influence was still strong over Perikles.

Science, too, was changed by Anaxagoras, not only because he did much toward reducing to order and formulating the astronomical and cosmological theories of the time, but because he made law the basis of scientific research, and sought to find the uniformity of law in the phenomena of nature. He received a strong incentive to rational study of science in his young manhood when he had the opportunity of visiting a large meteoric stone which fell near the Aegospotamos River, on the northern shore of the Hellespont. Who can tell what his thoughts were then, as he perceived with his own eyes the material character of this messenger from the heavenly bodies, the so-called gods?

The influence of the idea of the Nous on the political life of Athens can not be estimated. Perikles was a political idealist, bent on making the most of the intellectual ability of every Athenian citizen, and the close intimacy with a man like Anaxagoras probably accounts for much of the fineness of his work and his freedom from the superstitions of his age. The ruins of the Akropolis of Athens at the present time show us something of what his idealism did for art. Anaxagoras taught that the Nous exists in all things in a greater or less degree, and the art of his age, the highest that the world has known, expresses to a degree never before attained the psychical basis of beauty.

Anaxagoras's service to philosophy was, however, the greatest, although it has not been fully appreciated. For the first time the psychical element entered into philosophic research. The Nous had to be reckoned with, as well as matter so-called, and since then we have had different grades of world theories, some of which attribute to the psychical the whole of reality, like that of Plato, some the part, as with Aristotle, and some none at all, as with the materialists. With Anaxagoras was born the idea of spirit, yet in the vague and glimmering way in which all ideas come into existence, and the gratitude of the world for this idea has been given to Sokrates and Plato, who presented it in its fulness. Anaxagoras, therefore, does not rank as great among philosophers in popular opinion, because he was so soon overshadowed by those who completed his conception of the spiritual.

When Perikles's power began to wane and he could no longer protect his friend and teacher, the vengeance of the multitude whose gods had been attacked fell upon Anaxagoras. He was cast into prison, and saved with difficulty by his pupil, and exiled to Lampsacus, on the southern shore of the Hellespont. There he organized a school of philosophy, and the Anaxagoreans are referred to occasionally by later Greek philosophers, but the school was soon overshadowed by the results of the age immediately succeeding. When Anaxagoras was ill and likely to die, his friends in Lampsacus asked him what they could do in his memory, and he replied that he would be pleased to have the anniversary of his death kept as a holiday, and this custom was long observed. The people of Lampsacus also honored Anaxagoras after his death by erecting an altar to him, bearing on one side the word 'Nous' and on the other the word 'Truth.'

The greatest tribute, however, to Anaxagoras was paid in the time of imperial Rome, a tribute of which he was' not unworthy. An imperial Roman coin was issued at Klazomenai, on the reverse of which was the philosopher Anaxagoras with the globe in his hand.